Monday, December 12, 2011

Sue Grafton's "Alphabet Mystery" Series

One of my long-lived reading delights has been the "Alphabet Mystery" series by Sue Grafton. Starting with A is for Alibi (1982) and going up to 2011's V is for Vengeance, this group of novels is an absolutely stellar collective of character and plot. I started reading them at my father's suggestion back in the early 90's and made short work of all published to that point, mainly because the chief character, Kinsey Milhone, so intrigued me. Kinsey is a single female private investigator, with a no-nonsense attitude and a wardrobe to match.  She has one "dressy" dress, an all-purpose little black one made from fire-proof, wrinkle-proof fabric.  Kinsey herself is fire-proof and wrinkle-proof: she has survived bullets, kidnapping, car crashes, you name it. What seems to keep her going is her old school three mile runs, double Quarter Pounders with cheese, and a fabulous sense of humor. Her level-headed, clear-sighted judgment sprinkled with sarcastic bon mots gets me every time--I admire her wisdom and laugh at her spot-on self deprecation.  Kinsey cuts her own hair, with scissors often carried in her purse, and can pick a lock with the best of thieves. In Kinsey Milhone, Sue Grafton has made the independent 1980s female maverick flesh and blood.

This series also closes a generation gap for me.  My father, having introduced me to the books, makes a point of buying each new installment and passing it on.  We have had lengthy discussions over the years about Kinsey and also Grafton's writing style, how she varies each book so well. There are no repeat plots, no stale themes. Grafton keeps Kinsey growing and learning in her 1980s world. (The last book, Z is for Zero, will take place in 1990, when the P.I. turns forty.)  The fictional town of Santa Teresa where Milhone lives and works has changed too; Grafton has grown this setting with care, and each book shows it getting larger and, usually, more corrupt.  Kinsey, if anything, is becoming more ethical as the series progresses. (Halfway through V is for Vengeance, I was impressed with her passionate diatribe against shoplifting,  followed shortly by her stealing a suspect's mail--such delicious backsliding!)  My father and I love that a main character of a best-selling series is not politically correct, not one bit. If Milhone opposes or promotes a cause, it is not due to trend mongering or group-think. She is a function of her own belief system, not anyone else's. There was little political correctness in 1980s America, and Sue Grafton is faithful to this decade. No cell phones, just baby computers and neophyte cable--it's a humble world to revisit through this series and discuss with anyone old enough to remember the decade.